Sunday 9 February 2014

In defence of technology

We have a love-hate relationship with technology, don't we?  We get all excited about the shiny new gadget or app that promises to revolutionise our lives, but the feeling often dissolves into despondency when we find it falls somewhat short of its promises.  In my case, colourful metaphors soon follow.

Unfortunately, skepticism tends to win out over optimism in our social hive-mind (particularly here in the UK) and this is what greets much of the new tech that I see coming onto the scene, in a pattern I've seen repeated during the past couple of decades that I've been paying any attention to such things.  To a great extent, this is well justified and based on peoples collective experience.  I am personally in a constant flux between optimism and frustration with the tech that populates my life, and I spend an awful lot of time working to understand any shortfalls and work around them - it's a matter of pride!  I actually take a personal hit whenever tech fails for someone else, because I am so passionate about what it should (and could) do for us and want others to experience that.  Dammit, if you visit my home then everything will talk to everything else, first time and seamlessly... it will!

I really shouldn't spend so long making this stuff work though; it's a problem I know - I'm seeking help. Doesn't spending all that time somewhat defeat the object of improving our workflows and freeing up our time for the important stuff, or improving the stuff we create and consume?  Quite possibly, but I'm happy to take on that responsibility for others and make their stuff work too.  I'm a firm believer that everyone needs a geek in their lives and encourage you to go out and find yourself one.

You, "This ****ing stupid... why won't it..?"
Geek, "Have you turned it off and on again? ... Okay then, leave it with me, I'll fix it."

This not only makes the geek feel like a hero (!) it saves you time and stuff ends up working as you think it should.  It's a win-win.

Love Your Inner Geek

Until next time of course, and there's the clincher.  Actually, sometimes there's just not a geek within close enough proximity and that's when having a basic understanding of how the tech in your life works may just save the day.  Develop just a little bit of geek within yourself and see how much smoother the day goes!  Many people I know rebel at this stage, stating that 'bloody computers' are pointless and that we used to get on fine without them.  True, but we also used to think the same thing about cars; now you at least know what each pedal does and that the spinny thing in front of you changes the picture out of the window.

Agree with it or not, these tools that we sometimes call computers (and all the equivalent tech that surrounds them) are an integral part of getting on in life today.  A little while ago, you learned how doors worked.  I argue that your basic understanding of the flow of digital information exists at the same level and that when you learn a process, the principle is probably applicable to a dozen more scenarios that you'll meet in the future.  Technology in whatever guise follows a fairly general set of principles.  So whether you're working with stuff made by Microsoft, Google, Samsung or some independant developer from Taiwan, that same basic understanding will be a good starter for 10.

In short, listen to your geek; because this shit matters!

Which brings me on to my main dilemma.  The geek who is so enthusiastic that they lose their audience, mired as they are in past tech failings.  Winning these people over to adopting new tech is less like taking candy from a baby and more like giving diamonds to a cat.  The diamonds are wasted and it just confuses the cat.  So often I see new tech introduced (in the home or in the workplace) with so much to offer, but gathering dust in the corner or being a frustrating bottleneck to productivity.  The most annoying thing to me, is that this is very often not the fault of that tech itself, but in its implementation and integration.  Basically, it's rolled out, half-heartedly or without consideration that it does not exist in a vacuum.  Sometimes it's also the fault of the inappropriate use of technology - the assumption that newer is better.  As a geek, that's hard for me to say, but sometimes old school still works best.  That requires analysis and not just blind faith in 'progress'.  In these cases, new technology (progress) becomes as much of a hinderance as a benefit and people do that wonderfully human thing of finding a temporary work-around.  Which rapidly becomes a permanent work-around and eventually just the way things are done.  Until the next bright idea comes along and the cycle continues.

It's painful to work in and trust me, it's just as painful to watch!  The frustrating thing is that, with the right level of investment (of time and understanding, as much as of cash; if not more so) this new tech would work so well.  I don't just say that in blind optimism, I wholeheartedly mean it.  There is some truly beautiful tech out there at the moment.  From Apple's laptops to Google's tablets and online services, for both businesses and individuals.  Even Microsoft's Xbox is a gorgeous (if bulky) concept with actually useable voice control and use of cloud computing.  Welcome to the future; it's cloud-shaped, except...

Integrate or Frustrate

The reason all this beautiful new tech fails (don't get me started on my beef with Xbox One) is that it takes immense effort to make them talk to each other.  These days, integration is everything.  Integration outside of that business's or individual's ecosystem is rarely given the consideration it deserves; by us or by the provider of the tech in question.  If you just use products and services (the ecosystem) of one company, as demonstrated in their flashy product releases, then you'll probably have some success.  Unfortunately, I don't know a single person who exists solely in a single technological ecosystem; instead picking up a mix over time.  The business case for forcing everyone to use only your company's ecosystem is a bluntly obvious one.  It'll just work and you'll achieve more sales.  But it also backfires bluntly, because it doesn't reflect reality.  What are we doing if we're not reflecting reality?  These are tools.  Just tools.  That reality is that people invest in some new tech, but it fails to integrate with the services and hardware they already have.  The blame for this negative experience lands right at the feet of the producer of this newly obtained technology and becomes another reason why all technology is dubbed complicated and rubbish.

Unfortunately, I agree.  It is rubbish.  But that's not the fault of the tech, it's the fault of its integration and implementation.

Let me defend the geeks for a second, because it's not their fault - The technologies to make things work together are generally well defined and easy enough to work through.  The reason they don't work is a deliberate boardroom decision.  As a company, you're going to win over far more customers to adopt your products if you integrate seamlessly into their existing ecosystems.  If you're the best and easiest solution in front of them at the time.  If you try and bulldoze your way to replacing everything in toto, pretending that your products and services exist in a vacuum, then you just invite bad feeling and frustration.  Actually, Google seem to get this and I think are ahead of the game in this regard.  They integrate beautifully with most things I already use and so their slow takeover of my own ecosystem is largely attributable to being able to use it everywhere, with the least resistance.  They are more often than not the easiest solution in front of me when I need one.  It simply does what it's supposed to.  Also, I happen to think their design ethic is a work of art.

We Fear Change

This failure of tech to simply do what it promises is so common that it understandably makes people (I'm looking at business leaders and management now) fearful of any future development.  Better to stick with what we already know, no matter how much more efficient, safe and productive a new system can be.  That in itself is frustrating to me, flying the flag of technology, but at least in that example, what already exists does work.  As my partner often tells me, "Don't fuck with it."  Wise words.

The worst possible case is the one we see most often.  The halfway house.  You disrupt an established and generally okay system, promise the moon on a stick with what you're introducing, then hold back from implementing it thoroughly enough for the improvements to be realised.  How much of your work day is taken up chasing Tech Support for stuff that should just work?  How much slicker and easier do you find it working at your home computer?  What a waste of your working day, not to mention frustrating.

As one example: it's now perfectly simple to collaborate on the same document (or a presentation, a spreadsheet - whatever) with a group of colleagues in real time, with each team member within the same video chat room making traceable changes at any time of day, from any device and without even being in the same country.  All securely.  A number of companies offer this, some better value than others, and the streamlining and collaboration this provides to organisations of all types is immense.  To my mind, this is cloud computing at it's most eloquent.  It basically removes the actual technology involved and lets diverse and dislocated teams get creative and focus entirely on the actual project.

Isn't that what it's all about?  How long before you see this in your workplace do you think?  It isn't because it isn't already affordable.  It's because of the fear that it will fail and clinging to the way we've always worked.  The silly part being, that 'the way we've always worked' is so often the result of numerous short-term workarounds to poorly integrated tech in the past.

Time for some clean progress and some brave adoption.

I think people greatly underestimate the tipping point, where efficiencies (or often, completely new capabilities) outweigh the investment needed and so implement new tech late.  And then fail to follow through with fully thought out implementation and integration.

Yes, I'll blame management - isn't everything their fault anyway!?  But we as users of all levels also have a responsibility to understand the basics of the tech that we use both at work but also at home and to help drive forward its development and integration with our feedback.  To take control of it.  It's for all of us to take that feedback and make a realistic analysis of how we can most appropriately incorporate the beautiful tech that exists and the true (and often immense) benefits it can bring to your organisation, as well as to your personal life, when well implemented.


  1. Excellent! We need to keep pushing forward with new technologies. Serious IT implementation in my Police organisation is in the early stages - of course it's not ready-made and fully-formed but we are heading the right direction.

  2. Yes technological expectations often run counter to the actual use of the program or gadget.
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